In wake of blackouts, advocacy groups call for independent investigation and release of confidential data

Advocacy groups on each side of the country are calling on regulators and prosecutors to intervene in response to rolling blackouts in California earlier this month.

In San Francisco, the Utility Reform Network issued a public plea to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to launch an investigation into what prompted the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, to impose what’s called load-shedding.

In Washington D.C., the Public Citizen advocacy group has urged CAISO and federal energy regulators to identify which power plants contributed to the lack of power supply on Aug. 14 and 15, when the state saw its first deliberate blackouts since 2001.

“Identifying the names of power plants that helped trigger rolling blackouts is necessary for the public interest,” Public Citizen energy program director Tyson Slocum wrote to CAISO and the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“The easiest method for power sellers to engage in market manipulation is through capacity withholding: creating artificial shortages to push prices sky high,” Slocum added.

Neither federal energy regulators nor the Attorney General’s Office commented Tuesday. CAISO issued a statement saying: “We do not provide resource specific performance information because it is confidential.”

Both the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, and Public Citizens issued their requests on Monday, one day after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that some energy experts were concerned that the blackouts were due to deliberate price-manipulation.

In San Diego County, the price of a megawatt hour of electricity was selling for $1,500 or more early last week — 50 times higher than a typical unit costs. By Friday, the price declined to as little as $38 per megawatt hour.

CAISO officials blamed the deliberate outages on the extreme heat that has lingered across the Western states over the past two weeks as well as a decline in wind energy and the unexpected loss of an unidentified power plant.

They said they were aware of the sharp rise in the cost of electricity but they had no choice but to order the three power monopolies — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — to curtail service.

“We are required to keep energy reserves in case an unexpected outage causes supply shortages leading to an unstable grid and uncontrolled blackouts,” spokeswoman Anne Gonzales said in an email last week.

More than 700,000 homes and businesses were denied electricity service for up to two hours or longer during the blackouts. Power was not turned off in areas like Los Angeles and Sacramento, which are served by public utilities.

The report Sunday detailed how market manipulation led to rolling blackouts across California in 2001 and to the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis. Experts later estimated that the trading schemes cost consumers an estimated $42 billion.

In its letter to the Attorney General’s Office, TURN said the recent blackouts require an investigation by someone outside CAISO.

“TURN strongly urges an independent investigation to assess whether California residents have been the victims of market manipulation, price gouging and windfall profiteering,” the letter stated.

Specifically, the San Francisco nonprofit asked the Attorney General’s Office to figure out why blackouts were ordered even though energy reserves stood at levels that were above the emergency benchmarks and peak demand was lower than historical records.

TURN also wanted Becerra to investigate whether energy providers may have withheld power in order to raise prices.

“While such practices are never acceptable, they are especially egregious during the COVID pandemic, when the majority of the workforce is required to shelter at home,” it added.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week also ordered an investigation into what happened, sending a sharply worded letter demanding explanations from CAISO, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.

Leaders from all three agencies responded the following day, blaming the blackouts on weather, high demand and lower-than-expected power supplies. They said a more specific explanation would take more time to complete.